The Delusion of Perpetual Economic Growth

Fairy Tales of Growth

Directed by Pierre Smith Khanna (2019

Film Review

This documentary is about the urgent need to abolish the mindset that measures human progress in terms of economic growth. It also emphasizes the price we pay for growth in terms of heavy resource extraction and even heavier human exploitation.

The filmmakers begin by referencing Limits of Growth, published by the elite round table group Club of Rome published in 1973. Relying on MIT computer modeling, it predicted unrestrained growth would lead to economic and ecological collapse in the early decades of the the the 21st century.

The film makes many of the same points as Michael Moore’s recent documentary Planet of the Humans (see The Corporatization of the Climate Movement). Both depict the notion of “Green Growth” as a corporate scam. Politicians and environmental NGOs who claim that a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy will allow unlimited economic growth without causing irreparable harm to the planet are either deluded or deliberately lying to you.

Both films films assert our only option, at this point, for preventing environmental collapse is  to significantly reduce consumption and to prioritize human welfare and the environment over the continual acquisition of more stuff.

The filmmakers cite an interesting study revealing that every new purchase gives people an average of 15 minutes of happiness. In fact, a growing number of psychologists and sociologists believe improve if we focus away from material possessions to to improve health care and education, spending more time with our families, and rebuild our communities.

For me, the high point of the documentary is the link it makes between our debt-based system of money creation and the pressure for ever increasing economic growth. Contrary to public belief, at present 97% is created, not by government, by by private banks when they issue loans. (See We Need to End Money Creation by Private Banks – Urgently)

Because money only comes into existence when someone borrows money, the only way to keep enough money circulating in the economy is to continually increase (both private and government) debt. The cost of repaying this exponentially increasing debt is a continual increase in resource extraction, environmental degradation and pollution, and exploitation.

 

Will the Green Revolution Save Us?

Breakpoint: A Counter History of Progress

Directed by Jean Robert Vialett (2019)

Film Review

This is a bleak but fascinating documentary about the downside of so-called “progress” associated with the two century-long fossil fuel age. Starting with the replacement of wood with coal in the early 18th century, the film examines each new technological innovation the ruling elite celebrates as “progress.” By the end of the film, it is alarmingly clear that the great majority of the global population has paid an enormous price for this progress, in terms of chronic exposure to toxic chemicals and radionucleotides, global warming, near total deforestation, collapse of our fish stocks, colonization, massive poverty, and destruction of formerly vibrant public spaces by the automobile.

In the filmmaker’s view, what is commonly called “progress” are actually wealth making schemes that have made a few hundred people fabulously wealthy by destroying the health and wellbeing of the rest of us.

There are a number of surprises in the film. Previously I had no idea that social critics were warning against deforestation at the beginning of the 19th century, nor that this was a principal driver of the shift to coal. Nor was that the first solar PV technology was developed during World War II to reduce domestic demand for oil (needed for the war effort). The first solar home, built in 1948, was 75% self-sufficient. The early 1950s saw the production of 100,000 solar water heaters in the US. Eighty-percent of Florida homes were solar equipped at the peak of the first solar boom.

The early solar industry would be strangled in its infancy by a conspiracy between railroads, coal companies, and property developers to ensure all new power plants were coal-fired and all post-war boom homes connected to the grid.

The 1973 oil shock and Club of Rome study Limits to Growth inspired Carter to push energy conservation policies, as well as installing solar panels on the White House a second time in 1979. The solar industry would be killed a second time by the wave of neoliberal globalization launched by Reagan and Thatcher.

I was also horrified to learn about Project Plowshare, which promoted the use of nuclear bombs for “peaceful purposes” during the fifties and sixties. For 20 years, the US government detonated 27 atomic bombs to build a ship canal in Alaska. This cost taxpayers $770 million ($4 billion in today’s dollars).

The Soviets deployed 150 atomic bombs for similar civilian purposes.

The filmmaker is extremely pessimistic about the Green Revolution “saving” us given the massive demand for rare earth minerals (such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel) required to make solar panels and storage batteries.

Anyone with public library card can view film free at Kanopy – just type Kanopy and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

 

How Economic Growth is Destroying the Environment

Growing Pains: The Ecological Costs of an Insatiable Economy

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

This film begins by linking the new concept of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) introduced after World War II) with the popular myth that ever increasing GDP is a magic formula for preventing recessions and depressions and the mass unemployment and misery that accompany them.

Following the second world war, western countries experienced three decades of 8% GDP growth, resulting in near full employment and massive expansion of their middle class.

Unfortunately by the 1970s, most of western society had acquired all the cars, TVS, fridges and washing machines they could ever use; growth stalled and unemployment started to rise again. It was around this time the elite round table group Club of Rome* first questioned whether unlimited growth was possible on a finite planet.

In the 1980s, Wall Street’s answer to stalled growth was monetarism, a belief they could stimulate growth and prevent recessions by deregulating the the financial industry and simply controlling the money supply.

Instead of relying on the production of goods and services to increase growth, western economies began relying on the creation and trading of financial products (credit cards, mortgages, currency exchange, commodities futures, debt-based bonds, options and other derivatives) to keep the economy ticking over.

This seems to to work pretty well until 2008. Global growth collapsed that year and never really recovered.

The film directly challenges, from several perspectives, the pro-growth hype put out by various financial gurus. First they look at the heart breaking ecological damage wreaked by skyrocketing growth in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest. Next they examine evidence that the creation and trading of financial instruments is actually glorified gambling and speculation (in which winners have become fabulously wealthy at the expense of most of the middle class). And finally they talk to psychologists who challenge Wall Street’s claim that human beings have an endless desire to accumulate more useless stuff.

In my view the film’s major weakness is its failure to link the pressure for perpetual growth to our debt-based monetary system. At present, contrary to popular belief**, private banks create 97% of our money out of thin air when they issue loans (see An IMF Proposal to Ban Banks from Creating Money). This results in an ever increasing debt spiral, which can only be repaid via continuously increasing economic growth.


*See The Steady State Economy Movement

**When polled, most people in western countries express the belief that all money is issued by government.

The film can’t be embedded for copyright reasons but can be viewed free at the Al Jazeera website Growing Pains

The Steady State Economy Movement

Dietz_ONeill_Enough_is_Enough-201x300

Enough is Enough

Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (2014)

Free PDF download at steadystate.org/

Book Review

Enough is Enough is the report of the world’s first Steady State Economy Conference in June 2010. The concept derives from Herman Daly’s 1977 book Steady State Economy, published five years after the Club of Rome’s infamous Limits to Growth.

The 2010 conference was organized around two basic premises: 1) that the drive for unlimited economic growth is making the planet uninhabitable and 2) that transformation to a steady state economy is essential if we’re to have any hope of preserving the human species.

Enough is Enough begins by outlining why unlimited growth is impossible on a finite planet with finite resources. It goes on to define a steady state economy as having four key features: it’s sustainable, it provides for fair distribution of resources, it provides for efficient allocation of resources (i.e. it doesn’t rely solely on the free market in situations where the market can’t allocate resources efficiently) and it provides a high quality of life for everyone.

The authors focus on four basic steps essential in the transformation from a growth-based to a steady state economy:

1. An agreement to limit resource use – renewable resources (eg forests, fisheries) are harvested no faster than they can regenerated and non-renewable resources (eg fossil fuels) are consumed no faster than the wastes they produce can be recycled. There are a number of possible policy tools for making this happen: an outright ban (similar to current fishing bans), ecological taxation (eg carbon taxes or oil extraction taxes similar to Alaska’s petroleum tax), cap and trade (sets an overall cap and auctions off permits to pollute or mine up to that cap) and cap and share (sets an overall cap and distributes free permits to pollute or mine among all citizens).

2. Population stabilization – through non-coercive population policies that balance immigration and emigration and provide incentives to reduce family size. Examples include increasing access to birth control and education and full equality for women.

3. Inequality is reduced through policies that encourage worker cooperatives, employee ownership, shareholder participation, gender balance in positions of power, a Universal Basic Income (see The Case for Unconditional Basic Income), a cap on pay differentials between workers and management and progressive taxation schemes.

4. Monetary reform – in addition to prohibiting banks from creating money out of thin air and transferring the power to create money to a public authority, there needs to be more promotion of local currencies to stimulate local economies.

5. New progress indicators – substituting something similar to the Human Progress Indicator (HPI), which measures environmental and human well being, for Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which merely measures money.

6. Commitment to full employment – we need to use automation to eliminate onerous and unemployment work, rather than eliminating jobs, as well as shortening the work week (in conjunction with a UBI) to enable more people to have jobs.

7. New attitudes towards business and production – we need to incentivize businesses to achieve “right” sized profits that are large enough to guarantee a company’s economy viability but not so large they exceed its ecological allowance.

8. Global cooperation over resource use – we need to agree all trading partners wind down growth simultaneously. Otherwise steady state economies could experience significant trade disadvantages.

9. New consumer behavior – we need to promote new values that emphasize the positive aspects of a steady state economy (community connectedness, friendship and creativity) over the competitive individualism, hedonism, status and achievement that are emphasized in a growth economy.

10. Engaging politicians and the media (which will be the hardest) – by doing more research and analysis of the steady state model, creating forums to engage the public, politicians, policy makers and academics and to working for small changes at the local community level.
Rob Dietz is the European director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). More information about CASSE at http://steadystate.org/

In the video below O’Neill talks about their book.

 

Ecosystems, Cybernetics and the Club of Rome

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace*

Adam Curtis

BBC (2011)

Part 2

Film Review

Part 2 in this series discusses how utopian ideas about computers led the scientific community to promote a totally erroneous model of natural ecosystems.

The term ecosystem was first defined by ecologist Arthur Tansley. He mistakenly believed that ecosystems work just like computers – that all of nature is linked through organized networks that self-regulate by means of feedback loops. As ecology became the predominant scientific discipline of the early seventies, he and his colleagues went so far as to portray these interconnected networks as electrical circuits. Meanwhile Silicon Valley computer engineers, heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s radical individualism (earlier post), as well as this erroneous view of ecosystems, made a deliberate decision in 1968 to focus on personal computer technology rather than mainframe computers.

The work of Tansley and his colleagues would be totally discredited by new data that would emerge demonstrating were chaotic and unpredictable and tended towards wild fluctuations that never returned to an equilibrium point. Like many scientists, the early ecologists had oversimplified and distorted the data they collected to fit their model of nature as a self regulating system.

The Rise of Cybernetics

Meanwhile the scientific community’s fascination with computers would also give rise to the field of cybernetics, which looks at society as if human beings were a vast interconnected system of machines. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, was a strong proponent of this systems-oriented view of both nature and society. A strong egalitarian, Bucky envisioned a society (which he referred to as Spaceship Earth) that did away with authoritarian hierarchies and allowed people to live together as equal members of a closed system that would self-regulate – as a spacecraft does.

In the early seventies, disillusioned by the failure of the anti-Vietnam War, a half million young Americans left the cities to start experimental non-hierarchical communes in the countryside. It would be the largest mass migration in US history. Their goal was to create egalitarian communities in which people sacrificed their individuality for the benefit of the system.

Most of these communes would fail. Curtis blames their failure, without any real evidence, on a rigid absence of structure that allowed stronger and more dominant personalities to dominate and bully weaker ones. He likens the failure of the commune movement to the failed Color Revolutions* of the 1990s – which left Eastern European countries even more corrupt and unequal.

He seems to be making the case that egalitarian societies are impossible, which I strongly question. In my view the Color Revolutions failed for the same reason as the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions: because they were instigated, organized and funded by the CIA, State Department (and George Soros in the case of Eastern Europe) for the purpose of installing new governments favorable to US corporate interests.**

Enter the Club of Rome***

Two additional outcomes of the new field of ecology would be the formation, in 1968, of the elite roundtable group the Club of Rome and the first international environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972.

In 1972 the Club of Rome commissioned a study based on the theory that all human and natural activity was merely a vast interconnected system of feedback loops. The MIT computer scientists they hired developed a complex computer model based on the best population, resource, industrial production, agricultural production and pollution data. Their modeling, which the Club of Rome published in their 1973 bestseller The End of Growth, predicted major economic and environmental collapse in the first decade of the 21st century. The book maintained that the only way to prevent environmental and economic collapse was for western societies to give up their fixation with continuous economic growth.

The European left became extremely concerned that growth restriction would lock the ruling elite (who ran the Club of Rome) into their existing positions of privilege and power. They launched major protests against The End of Growth. They argued the proper role of the environmental movement should be to end the greed of political elites. That being said, the computer modeling on which the book is based predicted the 2008 economic collapse.


* Title of 1967 monograph distributed free by California cybernetics enthusiast Richard Brautigan. Available for $400 from Abe Books

**Serbia Otpor (Resistance) Revolution (2000), Georgia Rose Revolution (2003), Ukraine Orange Revolution (2004) and Kirghizistan Cotton Revolution (2005) – see The CIA Role in the Arab Spring

***The early Club of Rome was financed by corporate oligarch David Rockefeller, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (see  and the Ford Foundation. The two latter entities are well known conduits for CIA funding (see CIA-funded Foundations)

 

GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

growthbusters

(This is the seventh of a series of posts about ending our debt based monetary system and reckless emphasis on perpetual economic growth. Dave Gardner makes the ecological case for ending our addiction to continuous economic growth.)

Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth

2011, Directed and produced by Dave Gardner

http://www.growthbusters.org/

Film Review

Growthbusters is the inspiring story of Dave Gardner’s efforts to challenge conservative Colorado Springs’ failed growth promotion policies. The film also takes a broader theoretical look at the overall failure of economic growth to solve the global economic crisis.

While Gardner is clearly an environmental crusader concerned about the link between unlimited growth on carbon emissions, resource scarcity and species extinction, he inserts a heavy dose of economic reality into the discussion. All of us involved with local government have heard the same insipid assertions about the urgent need to cut corporate tax and regulations to attract new industry and jobs, as well as the need to spend to spend billions of dollars on new infrastructure to accommodate the hoards of people we want to attract to our cities and towns.

In reality, the people and institutions who promote growth most heavily are the only ones who benefit from it – at the expense of everyone else. This includes real estate developers who derive profits from building more homes, office blocks and shopping center; the mining and fossil fuel companies that fuel this economic activity, as well as heating all the new homes and powering the new cars; and the banks who finance all this. In other words the super rich.

The Population Bomb

In addition to tackling the pro-growth agenda head on, Gardner also makes the important link between exploding population growth and environmental degradation. Paul Ehrlich, who appears briefly in the film, warned in his 1970 book The Population Bomb that mankind was rapidly outstripping the Earth’s natural resources. Dennis Meadows, who directed the 1973 Club of Rome project resulting in the book Limits to Growth, also appears. Based on advanced computer modeling, this controversial report warned forty years ago that population growth and resource scarcity would cause the global economy to falter at the beginning of the 21st century. Apparently, as Meadows reminds us, the 2008 global economic crisis was right on schedule.

As Gardner, Ehrlich, Meadows and other experts point out, humankind is living beyond our means, “liquidating” resources we should be should be saving for our children and grandchildren. If we were still growing all our food locally, as we were at the beginning of the 20th century, it would be obvious there is no longer enough land in cultivation to feed 7 billion people. However because of globalization, most of the industrialized world has no idea where their food comes from. While the one billion people who die of starvation or gradual malnutrition are virtually invisible.

Family Planning: the Best Way to Reduce Carbon Emissions

Gardner doesn’t advocate for mandatory population control like they have in China. However he argues strongly for major environmental groups like the Sierra Club to use their public profile to begin educating governments and communities about making informed decisions around family size.

There’s no way we can possibly change enough light bulbs or plant enough trees to compensate for all the babies born to our children and our children’s children. Population control is a critical ecological issue. The “official” environmental movement is letting us all down by refusing to take it up.

New Paths Forward

Gardner himself does his part. When he’s not running for city council or making movies, he’s out in the street distributing free Endangered Species Condoms on the street. The condoms come in choice of packaging featuring endangered panthers, polar bears and cute critters.

He also encourages people to join the Transition movement to help in strengthening their communities, re-localizing economic life and rebuilding skills that don’t depend on corporations and fossil fuels.